Hadith Critics

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Islamic Law and Society 15 (2008) 143-184

www.brill.nl/ils

How We Know Early Ḥadīth Critics Did Matn Criticism and Why It’s So Hard to Find Jonathan A.C. Brown

Abstract Western scholars generally agree that early ḥadīth critics limited their authentication of ḥadīths to examining isnāds. e argument that these critics took the matn into account has relied on material of dubious reliability or on works produced after the formative period of the Sunni ḥadīth tradition. By providing examples of matn criticism from the 3rd/9th and 4th/10th centuries, I prove that Sunni ḥadīth critics did in fact engage in matn criticism; and I argue that these critics consciously manufactured the image of exclusive focus on the isnād in an effort to ward off attacks by rationalist opponents. By demonstrating a high correlation between the ḥadīths found in early books of transmitter criticism and those found in later books of forged ḥadīth with explicit matn criticism, I show that early critics engaged in matn criticism far more often than appears to have been the case, disguising this activity in the language of isnād criticism. Keywords matn criticism, ḥadīth criticism, ḥadīth forgery, al-Bukhārī, Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj, isnād, munkar

Introduction Western scholars have accepted that early Muslim ḥadīth scholars focused their efforts to determine the authenticity of reports attributed to the Prophet principally on their chains of transmission (isnād pl. asānīd) and ignored the key component of modern historical investigation: the contents of the reports themselves. Western scholars Correspondence: Jonathan Brown, University of Washington, Near Eastern Studies, Box 353120, Seattle WA, 98195. E-mail: Brownj9@u.washington.edu © Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2008 DOI: 10.1163/156851908X290574

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J.A.C. Brown / Islamic Law and Society 15 (2008) 143-184

have been entirely justified in this conclusion, as participants in the first four centuries of the Sunni ḥadīth tradition actively touted their obsession with the formal aspects of isnād criticism to the exclusion of any noteworthy interest in criticizing the contents of ḥadīths. e efforts of some Western scholars and modern Muslim apologists to prove that early ḥadīth critics did in fact look beyond the isnād have thus regularly foundered on the lack of any exculpatory evidence from the early Islamic period. In this article, I reevaluate our outlook on the methods of Sunni ḥadīth critics in the formative 3rd/9th and 4th/10th centuries, which encompassed the careers of influential critics such as Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl al-Bukhārī (d. 256/870) and ʿAlī b. ʿUmar al-Dāraquṭnī (d. 385/995). First, I will provide examples of early critics explicitly rejecting ḥadīths as fraudulent on the grounds that their contents were unacceptable, proving that content criticism was an established component of their critical arsenal.1 Second, I will demonstrate that what has appeared to be the critically obtuse edifice of the early Sunni ḥadīth tradition—with its evident inability to perceive glaring anachronism or illogical meanings—does not accurately represent the reality of early ḥadīth criticism. Rather, an indifference to the contents of ḥadīths was an image consciously manufactured by early Sunni ḥadīth critics as an essential part of the cult of methodology they created around the isnād in the face of their rationalist opponents. Finally, I will demonstrate that when the Sunni ḥadīth tradition openly began to shift its attention from isnād criticism to In discussions of ḥadīth criticism, the term ‘matn criticism’ has become conventional for indicating criticism of the text of the ḥadīth (as opposed to criticism of the chain of transmission, or isnād criticism). I believe the term ‘content criticism’ more accurately represents what Western scholars have meant by matn criticism, namely the notion that something in the contents or meaning of the ḥadīth is problematic. An early Muslim ḥadīth critic could...
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